The bitter battle over staff pay levels for 2006 intensified this week as university employers took out a full-page advert in The Times Higher accusing academic trade unions of rushing into ill-conceived industrial action.
The advert, placed by the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, accuses the Association of University Teachers and Natfhe of seeking to "flex their muscles" ahead of the unions' planned merger this year instead of engaging in serious discussions. The unions hit back, accusing Ucea of engaging in "mischievous propaganda".
The AUT and Natfhe are currently balloting their members, urging them to endorse plans for industrial action to begin as early as March.
The unions have threatened to bring higher education "to a standstill" this year with strikes and a marking and assessment boycott. They have asked for a 20 per cent pay rise over the three years from 2006-07.
In the advertisement on page 7 of The Times Higher this week, Ucea says the unions had submitted their detailed pay claim seven months before a pay increase is due, in August, adding: "Why ballot before the talks get going? What's the rush?"
The AUT, in a briefing document for its members, dismissed Ucea's claims and said that pay negotiations must precede the setting of institutional budgets. The union estimates that its 20 per cent claim would cost £1.8 billion compared with the £3.4 billion generated from top-ups.
To drive home its point, the AUT also released figures showing that vice-chancellors on Ucea's board had accepted pay rises that have averaged more than 30 per cent in the past three years.
A spokesperson for Ucea said: "Vice-chancellors do a very demanding job as chief executives of complex, multimillion pound organisations.
"Their remuneration packages reflect what it takes to attract, retain and reward individuals of sufficient calibre."